The Paradox of Optimism

I’ve long thought of optimism as one of the finest qualities a person can have; a characteristic I aspire to embrace more completely. I think we’d all agree that optimists are generally happier than pessimists. But there can be times when the very optimism that buoys people up can turn to their disadvantage, or in extreme cases, their demise. I was in a class last week that started the wheels turning in my head when I heard the remarkable story and words of an incredible man. His name: James Bond. James Bond Stockdale, rather. This guy is a real-life hero to look up to.

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James Stockdale is the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to ever be held captive in a prisoner-of-war camp. After being shot down in 1965 during the Vietnam War, he was taken to the Hoa Lo prison, euphemistically known as the Hanoi Hilton. Tortured to unconsciousness over twenty times during his nearly eight-year stay was not the worst of what this man suffered. He and his comrades were placed in solitary confinement, in leg irons, for four years. At first he was kept in total darkness, then with a light on that was never turned off. This alone would be enough to drive a person insane.

When told by the guards that he’d be put on parade to demonstrate how “well-treated” the prisoners were, Stockdale cut his own forehead with a razor blade. The guards just washed him up and covered his head with a hat. Determined not to become an object of propaganda, he beat himself in the face with a stool, disfiguring himself until he was completely unrecognizable. This is the part of the story that absolutely floors me. I’ve heard many examples of those who’ve found the strength to endure the worst kinds of torture imaginable at the hands of others, but this man deliberately inflicted his body with great pain on a matter of principle!

When asked by Jim Collins (author of Good to Great) how he made it out alive, Stockdale said, “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” The defining event of his life. To me this means that what he went through actually created his character, and that who he became as a result was so precious that, if it were possible to be given the choice, he wouldn’t have traded those eight years for any other experience. Wow. Wow. Wow!

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Collins then asked about those who didn’t make it out of Vietnam. Stockdale was quick to reply, “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Stockdale, however, had no expectations as far as timing. He said he was prepared to go on for twenty years. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–which you can never afford to lose–with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”

At first glance, this really to be a paradoxical idea. How can you really hold to the belief that you will prevail, while simultaneously confronting all the negative aspects of reality? If you’re being truly realistic, isn’t that mutually exclusive of a faithful, optimistic attitude? I do not believe this is so. And I think it all comes down to what your optimism is rooted in. Those optimists who died in prison had set for themselves arbitrary timelines of when they hoped to be released. They had no evidence that their particular timeline was valid enough to pour all their faith and hope into. But they poured it out anyway, and when the timeline proved to be invalid, they had no faith and hope left to sustain them, so they gave up.

Stockdale, however, placed his faith in the end of the story, knowing he would eventually prevail, while acknowledging that the timing was totally outside of his control. This is true surrender. This is real faith, not superficial optimism masquerading as such.

I’ve seen shallow optimism often, and it has always bothered me, though I could never articulate it as well as others can. English writer G.K. Chesterton wrote that this type of optimist will “defend the indefensible. He is the jingo of the universe; he will say, ‘My cosmos, right or wrong.’ He will be less inclined to the reform of things; more inclined to a sort of front-bench official answer to all attacks, soothing everyone with assurances. He will not wash the world, but whitewash the world.” These are clearly not the kind of optimists that add value to the world.

I also like what a speaker named Bruce Hafen said of another type of superficial optimist: “Every new day is probably going to be the best day they ever had. These cheerful ones are happy, spontaneous, and optimistic, and they always manage to hang loose. They are able to weather many storms that would seem formidable to more pessimistic types, though one wonders if the reason is often that they have somehow missed hearing that a storm was going on.” It’s interesting that some people are so attached to a certain point of view that they will actually blind themselves to anything that apparently contradicts it! But, if this extreme is to be avoided, should we then embrace pessimistic realism? Hafen continues:

It is not much of a choice to select between a frantic concern with perfection and a forced superficial happiness. Both perspectives lack depth, and their proponents understand things too quickly and draw conclusions from their experience too easily. Neither type is very well prepared for adversity, and I fear that the first strong wind that comes along will blow both of them over. This, I believe, is primarily because their roots have not sunk deep enough into the soil of experience to establish a firm foundation. Both also reflect the thinness of philosophy untempered by common sense. In both cases, it would be helpful simply to be more realistic about life’s experiences, even if that means facing some questions and limitations that leave one a bit uncomfortable. That very discomfort can be a motivation toward real growth.

So what does this look like? How do we be optimistic while still holding common sense and seeing life for what it really is?

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I think the answer is found in the words of a man I dearly love, Gordon B. Hinckley:

“Stop seeking out the storms and enjoy more fully the sunlight. I am suggesting that we ‘accentuate the positive.’ I am asking that we look a little deeper for the good, … that we speak of one another’s virtues more than we speak of one another’s faults, that optimism replace pessimism, that our faith exceed our fears.”

It’s definitely possible to be in the heart of the storm, recognizing it fully for what it is, but carrying the absolute knowledge that the storm will end and the sun will come out again, even if we have no idea when that will be. Even better, we can look for the benefits in our personal “storms” and recognize the ways in which these situations are shaping us and accelerating our growth into individuals rich in character.

Too Much of a Good Thing

The NBC show Parks and Recreation is one of my favorites because of its wide variety of entertaining characters. On the show, Chris Traeger (played by Rob Lowe) epitomizes what this post is about. This character is absolutely obsessed with fitness and nutrition. He has run ten miles every day for the past 18 years (which equates to a third of the way to the moon!). He comes to realize that although his body is in nearly-perfect physical condition, his life feels lonely and meaningless. That’s when he starts going to a shrink five times a week and talks about him to his friends nonstop.

Can you get too much of a good thing? Absolutely. We all know people who get taken in by something neutral or even good, which, when taken to unreasonable extremes, ends up having a negative impact. Some people spend so much of their time and energy in caring for others that they neglect their own needs. Some are constantly seeking to learn more and more, but rarely end up applying that knowledge and don’t actually ever accomplish anything. Others are so overly concerned about only eating the healthiest food that it actually now qualifies as a mental disorder called Orthorexia nervosa. Or there are those monkish “spiritual” types that always have their heads in the clouds and can’t really relate to those around them, who end up living isolated lives. Caring for others, learning, spirituality, and eating healthy food are all positive habits, but problems come when we emphasize these to the exclusion of other important and good things.

The ultimate health and fulfillment comes from balance of all the aspects of our lives. Any extreme or excess in any one area causes things to come out of alignment. That is because if we focus too much on either the body, mind, or spirit, we usually end up neglecting one or two of the other areas. We have a finite amount of time, energy, and resources, so directing too many of those things to one area deprives the others. Often, the truest wisdom is found not in what we choose to do, but what we choose to leave undone.

I’ve come up with a short list of other examples of excesses. (If you come up with more, feel free to add them in the comments section.) Perhaps you’ll see inclinations toward one or two of these in yourself:

  • Worry and anxiety (thus overly expending mental energy, causing emotional redundancy)
  • Too much socializing, talking, laughing
  • Concentrating with too much effort
  • Too much time or energy spent doing the same activities (work, TV, games, media use)
  • Pushing the physical body to extremes
  • Overemphasizing a personal relationship (as is the case with Super-moms)
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Overeating (even healthy food!)
  • Overly stimulating the senses
  • Getting worked up emotionally to passionate extremes

If any of these rang true for you, I hope you’ll recognize the steps you need to take to bring your life back into balance. As a teenager, an area of imbalance for me was obsessing over grades and schoolwork. I took this to such an extreme that I only slept 4-5 hours a night in high school and ended up getting Mono, which then relapsed a couple of times. At other times in my life, I got myself so worked up emotionally that I would deliberately put myself in risky situations, such as walking outside alone in the middle of the night or driving recklessly. One other area that used to cause problems was my over-thriftiness, when I wouldn’t spend money for something unless it was at a certain price point or I had a coupon. There’s nothing wrong with saving money, but for me, it took a toll on my family relationships, and I wasted a lot of time seeking out good deals.

The way to obtain health and balance is through moderation. We must conserve the forces that sustain us. That is done through peace, rest, nourishment, restraint, detachment, calmness, and relaxation. Our objectives are a strong and healthy body, a disciplined, aware mind, and a creative, vital spirit. Contentment is the result of these three points coming together in harmony.

Approaching Surrender

This is my Buddy, 4 years old. In just two days he will undergo open-heart surgery. About 4 months ago, we found out that he had a congenital heart defect, a large hole in the upper aortal wall. This problem isn’t producing any symptoms now, but if left untreated, it would become life-threatening in his adult years. I hate to think of his perfectly-smooth, supple skin being marred forever by a long scar, but I know he’s going to be just fine. We’ll probably be able to bring Buddy home after five days or so in the hospital, and recovery beyond that is predicted to be just a couple weeks.

I’ve experienced quite a broad range of thoughts and emotions these past months. I’ve learned so much about myself and the patterns that often play out in my life. Here’s a little run-down. (In reality I didn’t feel these one at a time, in isolation, but rather, these were the dominant modes I was in at each stage.)

Denial

In the several weeks between the routine pediatric visit and the echocardiogram appointment, I was in denial mode and had convinced myself that the murmur would turn out to be nothing. Unless I have good reason, I’m not a worrier. It’s not a very good way to be, since sometimes I turn a blind eye to potential risks and hazards. I do this for the shallow sense of security it provides. I really thought that hope and positive thinking would actually prevent anything bad from becoming a reality. While there are many merits to having hope and thinking positively, it becomes naive and limiting when you simultaneously avoid acquiring more knowledge and facing facts.

Procrastination

After finding out that surgery was pretty much our only option, I went into procrastination mode. I didn’t want to make any decisions until I absolutely had to, because then it didn’t seem real enough to think about. It doesn’t make any sense, but I do this to avoid having to face and think about unpleasant things. Even after the surgery was scheduled, it was still 2 or 3 months away, which seemed like a really long time. I didn’t want to do anything to prepare for it, because that would be acknowledging that it was coming up.

Sadness

Our pet rabbit died in the heat back in June, and while I was saddened by the loss of my daughter’s bunny, this situation also forced all my sadness concerning Buddy out into the open. I cried for days. I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t get much done during the day, which was bad because we’d just moved into our new home and had a big trip coming up. It was also bad because when my little girl saw me displaying sadness, she would get sad about her bunny all over again. I told myself I was being ridiculous for being so sad over a rabbit, but deep down I knew it had more to do with my son. I was so sad that such an innocent and healthy kid had to undergo a surgery such as this, and that he would be made to suffer, and that I, his mother, would be allowing him to suffer. It broke my heart.

Distraction

Because I couldn’t keep wasting energy in profound sadness, I decided to distract myself from thoughts that would plunge me into it. I buried my feelings in the work of settling into the new home and preparing to drive across the country to Nauvoo, IL. The trip itself was a great distraction, and learning so much about the lives and struggles of mid-nineteenth century people put a lot of my worries in perspective. Upon returning home, I spent a lot of time listening to recordings and audiobooks so as not to be alone with my thoughts.

Fear

Distraction was really just an attempt to continue procrastination. But it couldn’t last long because the sadness I had felt so keenly had brought fear with it, and those fears were fighting to be acknowledged. This fear was worse than the sadness. I thought of everything that could go wrong, and what I would do if that were to happen. I soon began to convince myself that something was sure to go wrong, that it had to go wrong. My son picked up on my fear subconsciously. He started saying over and over again, “I’m going to die in the hospital.” No one had told him this. But children can subconsciously pick up on the emotions of adults close to them and extrapolate meaning in relation to themselves. As soon as I recognized what my own fear was doing to him, I also saw what it was doing to myself and knew I needed to change it.

Gratitude

To leave the place of fear and darkness, I needed to flip a switch to let the light in. That switch is gratitude. Instead of focusing on what I was afraid would happen, I tried to think more about the good things concerning this situation. I’m so grateful that his pediatrician was adept enough to recognize that his heart murmur was not an innocent one. Although this has been difficult information to face, I’m glad that we found out now while he’s still little. I’m grateful for superior technology in this day and age. I’m glad we live so close to such a wonderful hospital as Primary Children’s, full of proficient doctors and nurses. I’m grateful for the timing for many reasons, one of which is that my previous pregnancy’s due date was August 6, the very day of the surgery, and my current pregnancy’s due date is not until the end of November. I’m grateful that this happened to my naturally least-active child, who will be affected much less by having his activity level restricted for a few weeks.

Faith

Now that my outlook is brighter and fear set aside, I am able to utilize faith. Faith is an action word. It’s not simply a belief. It is a power. Faith is utilized through visualization and intention. I now visualize the surgery going well and being executed successfully. I fully intend to bring my son home from the hospital, perfectly whole and healthy, and won’t have to worry about his heart anymore. I don’t allow myself to hold thoughts in my mind of anything else. Of course those thoughts often try to push in, but I push them right out again. Sitting in that waiting room is going to be the biggest challenge of all, but I intend to continue holding to this positive vision.

Surrender

Surrender is an extension of faith. It is letting go of what you want or think should happen and just allowing what is. It is acknowledging my own powerlessness over those aspects of life that I can’t control, and being okay with that. Anxiety and stress come from trying to predict and control every aspect of life. When you let go of that ultimately-fruitless need to control, you experience peace. I haven’t experienced surrender yet, but it’s what I’m working toward right now. It’s important to live in the NOW from moment to moment instead of dwelling on what could happen in the future. In the now, there are no problems, and everything is as it is. I am going to have to leave my son in the hands of nurses and sit in a waiting room where I am totally powerless over anything that happens in that operating room. All I can do is hold on to my positive intentions for Buddy, and have faith that the doctors and nurses will be fully in the now themselves in order to create that result I’ve visualized. For me to do anything but surrender to this, to resist in any way, is not just inane, but will rob me of energy and peace, and negatively impact Buddy and others, too. I know that if I can surrender to this, it will be that much easier to surrender to other situations that will come into my life.

I’m so thankful for the faith of so many of you and for your thoughts and prayers for Buddy and our family. I can really feel the power of it. I’ve learned so much about my little son, and how special his spirit is. I know, in ways I can’t explain, that Buddy chose before he was born to go through this, because it needed to happen for different reasons. I have such a profound respect for him and his courage and gifts. I’ve loved seeing glimpses of his soul, rather than just seeing him as a mother sees her young child, and really seeing his spirit, equal to my own, and being able to learn and grow so much because of him.